19 September, 2005
Ilan Pappe Interview by Don Atapattu
Articles / Religion and Politics
Posted by Evan Hays on Jul 13, 2005 - 11:42 AM
Dr. Ilan Pappe, professor of political science at Haifa University and part of the “new history” movement in Israeli Universities, sat down recently for an interview with Don Atapattu to discuss his views on the state of affairs in Israel-Palestine. A strong proponent of the Palestinian cause, Pappe has recently been the subject of controversy as he refused to back down in support of a graduate student studying the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe). Haifa University’s treatment of Pappe in response to this controversy was one of the main reasons that the AUT chose to boycott the university in the spring of 2005.
Within the interview, Pappe discusses many of the current issues in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Enemy of the State – A conversation with Professor Ilan Pappe
You are of German/Jewish descent, how did your parents actually come to be in Israel?
They came separately in the early 1930’s. It was Hitler’s Reich that pushed them out of Germany. My father more for Zionist reasons chose Palestine; but my mother looked at it as the only practical possibility because it was the cheapest to go there. It was an escape from Nazism.
You would think you would be an ardent supporter of Zionism with that kind of background; but you have an ambivalent attitude at best. I assume you haven’t always held the views you have now.
No, no. definitely no. I cannot blame my family so to speak, and they definitely did not educate me in that way. I think it is a long process in which people challenge the indoctrinations from above. The fact that I grew up in an Arab-Jewish city like Haifa and had several Arab kids in my class opened my eyes at an early age that there is another group of people which are a bit different from the majority. Also, events like the 1973 conflict in which I participated and I saw some of the evils of war. Later on, witnessing events like the initiative Sadat took to Israel; the Lebanon invasion; and the first intifada or ‘uprising’; are all formative events that contributed to a change of mind. That’s one trajectory so to speak. The other was to become a student outside of Israel and to choose 1948 as my doctorate subject, and realising through (studying) the archives what really happened in 1948. So I think that it is the political developments to which I was a witness on the one hand; and the very specific nature of my research on the other; that contributed to having such a different point of view I think from most Jews in Israel.
Speaking about your research, you have written about how the main allure to East European Jewry was the wave of Russian and Polish anti-Semitism, and obviously, the rise of Nazism. What do you think of Edward Said’s view that the Palestinians are ‘the victims of the victims’ and the conflict is a case of the abused becoming the abuser?
Definitely - I share it. I think that Zionism is a movement seeking a solution to the problems of the Jews in Europe; especially a proper salvation to the constant and systematic persecution of the Jews. Zionism, before it chose Palestine, was a national movement with which I could empathise. But the moment it opted for Palestine; it persecuted the indigenous population, and created as Edward Said says a ‘chain of victimisation’. Which I think he meant that there is a kind of shared destiny here; which affects the nature of the best solution for the problem, and explains the dialectical relationship between the Jews and Palestinians in the land. As a general definition of the relationship between what happened to the Jews in Europe and what happened to the Palestinians in Palestine, I think it is an apt description.
Do you accept the idea common among pro-Zionist quarters that anti-Semitism has effectively reversed itself? Where Jews previously fled persecution from Christians to Arab and Islamic nations, but now the bulk of anti-Semitism in the world is found amongst Muslims against Jews in both Israel and the West.
Not entirely. I mean I accept the first half which describes what was anti-Semitism before the creation of Israel; but I think after the creation of Israel there was still what one can call the classical movements of anti-Semitism. Also, I am not sure that a Semitic group of people like the Muslims can be that easily called anti-Semitic. Secondly, unlike anti-Semitism in Europe I think that the animosity and hatred directed towards the Jews and especially the Jews in Israel, has a lot to do with what the Jews are doing rather than with who the Jews are, which I think is a very important difference. It is not that I condone every attack on a synagogue in Europe, or any other attack on Jewish symbols or people; but I think it comes from a very different place, and I fail to see the kind of ideology and theology that accompanied Christian anti-Semitism for centuries. In the case of the Islamic movement in Europe there, there is a very direct target and the target is oppressive Israeli policies. The second point is that the fact that so many Jews in Europe, especially in France and Britain are willing to be ambassadors of Israel, means that when an angry Muslim youth throws a stone at a synagogue which has an Israeli flag, this is the closest symbol or the closest institution he knows of which represents Israel. So I think it is far more difficult in my mind, to attach the adjective anti-Semite to the attacks on Jewish targets which are directly associated with Israel. Anti-Israeli, yes, but I don’t think that anti- Israeli attitudes, policies or actions are equivalent to anti-Semitism. I think the old anti-Semitic groups may be fellow travellers to this new trend. The new trend itself has much more to do with the complex relations between Islam, the Arab world and the Middle East, and that very alien political entity that settled itself by force in the midst of the Arab world in the late nineteenth centaury.
Out of interest, what happened to the indigenous Palestinian Jews? I heard that most of them were anti -Zionist.
Did they get absorbed?
They did. In the 1920’s and 1930’s they became a very small portion of the overall Jewish community in Palestine, so numerically they could not have any influence. Very few of them dared to actually oppose the Zionist interpretation of the reality. Although they knew much better who the Palestinians were, what Arab culture was all about; they disappeared as an elite. By the time the state of Israel came into being in 1948, you can see a small aristocracy of people who were originally there. But the next generation had a very different perspective. One such person is the father of A.B. Yehoshua. He comes from such a family and there is a distinct difference between the position of his father, who was much more empathetic to the indigenous population of Palestine as a whole, than his son. He certainly adopted a very clear outspoken Zionist point of view.
Did they consider themselves Palestinians?
Absolutely. But you have to understand at the moment, one can say the moment is roughly 1929-1930. When the leadership of the Jewish community regards an anti-Zionist position as tantamount to treason; they had to change or pay a very high price. The same would happen later on even to the ultra orthodox Jews who basically had to be anti-Zionist. According to the ultra orthodox point of view you cannot tamper with the divine plan (which allows the Jews to return to Palestine only with God’s intervention); if you tamper with it, and bring back false Jews you are not doing the word of God. Therefore at the beginning; most of the ultra orthodox Jews said they cannot be Zionists and opposed the idea of Jewish statehood as sacrilegious. But with time they were Zionised. A very small group which is called Neturei Karta has remained loyal to this idea to this day.
Do you have any faith yourself?
No, I am an agnostic. Basically, I am a secular person. But I do regard myself as Jewish definitely. I have no problem with my Judaism or my Jewishness, but I am not a religious person. As you probably know, the majority of Jews in Israel are not religious. My guess is that only 15-20 % of the Jews in Israel are observing their religion. It is a very small portion of the society, and it became smaller because of immigration from the ex Soviet Union. 31% of the Jews today in Israel today are people who came from Russia and its satellites, and the vast majority of these people are very secular. In fact, for me it’s nice because the delicatessen shops which sell non kosher meat or ham disappeared for a while, until the Soviet Jews -and some of them are not Jews- came.
In your last book you attribute much of the friction between Jewish settlers in mandate Palestine and the Palestinians to the Zionist leadership being dominated by racist East Europeans. It has been noted before, that the most accommodating segment of the Ashkenazi community have mostly come from Central Europe; while the most chauvinistic elements have been East European. Can you expand on this?
Let me put it this way. The East European Jews were the majority in the Jewish community between 1918 to 1948. But is not only the numbers, they also occupied almost exclusively the centres of power where decisions were made. Therefore they are responsible for shaping the kind of policy I described towards the indigenous population. Jews came from Central Europe in greater numbers after the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s, and were kind of a bourgeoisie. They also bought capital which was very important for the Jewish community because the Eastern Europeans came without anything. They needed them to energise the economy of the Jewish community and so on; but politically, they totally excluded them and they did not integrate them into the political elite. I also have to say, that East European Zionism in and before 1882 started as a movement of a national revival, especially the revival of the Hebrew language. They insisted on Hebrew being the dominant language and you had to be quiet fluent both in writing and talking in Hebrew. The Central European Jews came with no Hebrew at all, and were very disadvantaged in this respect. Thirdly, there was accompanying ideology that most of the Eastern Europeans were socialists. It had to with the collective settlement in the form of Kibbutzim, and putting forward the ideas of the working people or the peasants in those agricultural settlements. Obviously you did not fit the ethos if you had a lawyer’s office in Haifa or Jerusalem.
So, do you think it mainly a class issue to why the attitudes of the Central Europeans differed to the East Europeans towards their Arab neighbours?
Class was one thing. But more importantly, the kind of nationalism that Eastern European Jews brought with them was a very romantic, Polish variety of nationalism. It is a nationalism which is very strong on ethnicity and race or culture or religion. The Central European Jews had a more civic or liberal kind of nationalism, that maybe had the room to accommodate even non Jews in it. However, the fact remains that it was the East Europeans that built the colonialist project. This kind of reality informed their attitude. There came an interesting transformation of the definition of a Jew. Because when they were in Europe they defined Jews as someone who is not a Christian; and when Zionism transferred Jewish people into Palestine, a Jew became someone who is not an Arab. As I write in my book it has created a lot of problems when they finally decided to bring all the one million Arab Jews, they had to decide if they are Arabs or Jews, because they couldn’t have been both. I think that also explains the kind of attitude that developed towards the native population. But above all, if you take romantic nationalism and you take colonialism, it means that any part of Palestine that has been defined as the ancient land of Israel is a force that cannot tolerate the existence of anyone else but the Jewish people. Then comes the question about the means of how you achieve it, but the strategy was to my mind very clear form the beginning….
In your book you illustrated the racial hierarchy in Zionism through the agricultural labour hiring practices of the mandate era Jewish settlements. The bosses wanted to hire Arabs who worked cheaper than Jewish immigrants, but Zionist leaders wanted Jews to only hire Jews. They resolved this by using Arab-Jews who were politically acceptable as Jews, but worked at Arab wages! One thing interesting about the racial fault lines within modern Israel is that while Oriental Jews complain of discrimination, ironically they are now the most belligerent towards the Palestinians - with whom genetically and culturally they share more in common with then the secular Ashkenazi elite. Even the extreme right-wing murderer of Yitzak Rabin was a Jew of Arab descent, and Shas leader Ovadia Yosef (who demanded that Arabs be ‘annihilated’) is an ethnic Iraqi. Why do you think this is?
Romantic nationalism mixed with colonialism, is what fed the attitudes of the Jewish community. You create this idea that a Jew is very different from an Arab. He is different from an Arab because he is also European, he is the West, the Arabs are the East, he is the orient he is the primitive side of the story. It works well until 1948; but because of the fact that so many survivors of the Holocaust did not opt to come to Israel but preferred to come to the United States or to remain in France; it meant that there was a demographic need to increase the number of Jews. I studied the problematic period in which the Jewish leadership made the transformation, i.e. after the years of deciding that they do not want the Jews of the Arab world to come to Israel; they changed their mind and opted for this alternative. The whole Zionist project until 1948 was based on the principle of getting as much of Palestine as possible with as few of the Palestinian Arabs as possible and in 1948 they drove almost one million Arabs out of Palestine. Later, as someone in the Israeli government lamented ‘we drove out one million Arabs and now we are bringing in one million Arabs’. To cut a long story short what they decided to do is to de-Arabise these people. One of the means of de-Arabising people is conveying a very clear message to these people who were in parenthesis, pushed into the economic and social margins of society; was that you have to show us that you are not an Arab. And, what is the best way of showing that you are not an Arab? By being venomously anti-Arab.
The other day I read a book about the Irish community in the United States, which when they came over, poor and enslaved in many ways; they were worried that they would be treated like blacks. They adopted a very strong anti-black attitude in order to prove that they were White. I think the same happened here, that this was the ticket of being integrated into society that despised everything which was Arabic; despite that this was actually the culture and the language of those people who came from the Arab world.
Presumably the desire to dilute the numbers of Arabs in Israel today is behind what you have written about the Israeli government importing many hundreds of thousands of Russians - many of them who are not in fact actually Jewish?
Yes. Definitely. You see as long as you are not an Arab you are welcome, especially after you exhaust the resource of Jewish immigration from the Arab world. You are even willing to do something which was very different from the Israelis, which was to allow African Jews to come over. They later regretted it as you can see from the way they treated the Jewish Ethiopians in Israel, but they were invited because they were not Arabs. Bringing white people from the ex Soviet Union, Jewish or non-Jewish, as far as the political elite was concerned was important; due to their obsession with maintaining a demographic majority.
Would you agree that the distortion of scholarship is due to the extremely emotional and partisan baggage people have on this subject, and fails to provide outsiders with accurate and objective information? It is only recently that mainstream academia has accepted that the Palestinian narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict is closer than to the truth than the traditional Zionist mythology (no Palestinian expulsion, ‘settlements not conquest’, ‘purity of arms’ etc.). I am thinking in particular of Israel’s leading historian Benny Morris, who justifies the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 by saying ‘the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians …. (there) are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.’ Israel was created in the aftermath of the Nazi holocaust, but yet here he is expropriating the Nazi ideology of lebensraum against ‘inferior’ peoples! ¹
I think I would agree with this. I was thinking myself about Morris’ so called transformation. I know the man well and I know these ideas were hidden. After October 2000 he felt it was right to voice them more clearly because the whole political and cultural system in Israel moved to the Right and it became acceptable. I am bewildered by the fact that very intelligent people, whom I have known for many years, can articulate very clear moral and logical positions almost on every issue in the world except on Zionism; where they leave behind any moral or ethical consideration. They are totally blinded, but I am not sure it is only emotion. The important thing is not just the facts, which we are very thankful to Morris for exposing (war crimes in 1948), but of course what you do with these things. What he did was return them into the ideological presence of Zionism; he did not become an anti-Zionist because of it; and what you realise when you read him, is that even if the story was worse, let's say there was a genocide not just ethnic cleansing, he would remain a Zionist. The nature of the crime admitted, the crime does not really become a crime. Suddenly what started as a crime in the first book became an existential struggle of survival. That’s my point of view; I think that if you are very emotional about killing people, raping women and so on; you should have strong, serious problems with the ideology that it’s all about.
Also, I think the most interesting point about people who write in the name of the nation; are usually those who claim most vociferously that they are doing it objectively and scientifically -the more you are committed to a national ideology, the more you claim you write objectively. So, as I say, it’s more than just an extreme emotional attachment. It’s being programmed - in a terrible way to my mind.
Some might argue that you require deprogramming as a member of the Israeli communist party, which is somewhat way out of the mainstream discourse in Israel and also the West.
Well, that’s a very interesting way of putting history: One, I am not a member of a communist party; I am a member of a front which includes the communists. In fact, I angered my communist comrades when in an interview with ‘Le Monde’ I said I cannot be a communist as I love life too much, and I was nearly was chucked out the party for saying this! Secondly, I joined political life after being de-programmed. It’s not that I joined a party then I was de-programmed. I was first de-Zionised so to speak and then I decided to do something. In fact, I blame Britain for my views, and the four years that I did in Oxford as a doctorate student.
The simultaneous work on the Israeli archives on one hand, and the fact that I had an Arab tutor and Palestinian friends, very much enabled me to see the alternative narrative; and then I think I developed a third narrative. I am also not a Palestinian nationalist.
I was going to mention that despite your left wing views, you accept, that there wasn’t really a nation of Palestine prior of Zionism; and that the inhabitants of mandate Palestine identified primarily with towns and villages rather than the ‘country’. This is a very prickly area as Palestinians think this negates their claim to Palestine; which Israelis are very keen to do as demonstrated by the ‘memoricide’ of 1951 ²
I totally agree. Basically, as long as the ruling Turkish Empire was Muslim and Islamic in civilisation and nature, most of the Arabs saw themselves as part of it. I think the moment in 1908 when the Young Turks took over and said that you are all Turkish citizens, or the French took over Algeria already in 1930 and said to the locals you are a colony of Britain or a colony of France, there a different kind of attitude developed which could be called Arab nationalism.
Until 1908, if you look at what most of the Arab nationalist intellectuals talk about, they talk about the Austro-Hungarian model of sharing the empire with the Turks. So, this will mean in that respect there was no Palestine, no Syria or Iraq. The moment when the young Turks want to Turkify everyone, suddenly they don’t want the Hungarian model they want an independent Arab kingdom. The moment the colonialist powers carve the Levant between into administrative areas, these administrative areas become national entities including Palestine. I think that there are many Palestine historians today who would agree with this description.
The traditional Chomskyite Leftist view of Israel’s role in the Middle East is as a surrogate army for the United States. A newer and highly controversial theory is that Israel and its American lobby are actually the tail wagging the dog. According to this analysis the cause of the Iraq war was an alliance between non-Jewish ex cold warriors and oil industry insiders (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice etc.), and the Jewish ‘neo-cons’ (Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Abrams etc.) who had previously worked for think tanks promoting the ‘Eretz Israel’ agenda. Which more closely reflects your opinion?
I think it is really somewhere in the middle. I don’t really buy this idea the Jews of Israel are so powerful as to totally control American policy, even to the point of causing the American president to send troops into Iraq. I am an historian, and as a historian I know that the America support for Israel developed in a very bizarre and unpredictable way. Namely, it was not there to begin with, so I lean more towards the Chomsky view. Also, I would like to believe this; as if Israeli and Jewish influence is so dramatic, then we are in for a very long winter. There was a kind of ad-hoc American policy in the Middle East to begin with in the 1950’s and 1960’s, not a very clear cut American policy some people say. As it develops the Israelis very cleverly pushed themselves into becoming a centre pillar of that policy. I think they had the ability to say, oh this is your policy, and so what you need is a bastion like ours. Now, I think that new conservatives developed independently of Israel during the Cold War. It’s a strategy that believes that America needs a constant enemy and a constant war between the good and the bad.
However, there is the new development of the Christian Zionists, and it’s too premature to say whether it’s so fundamental that they would stay there forever. Together with AIPAC, there was definitely an attempt by the tail, to wag the dog, but the dog has other tails and they are not all coming from Israel and Jewish people. Interestingly, if you read carefully the ideology of the Christian Zionists it’s very anti-Semitic. For the time being it is pro Israel, but the idea is to basically get rid of the Jews, once their divine plan materialises. If you look at the complex relationship between the industrial and the military complexes on both sides, I do think the centre is America not Israel. In other words I don’t think the Israeli military industry is the one that dictates the strategic American policies. I think it became almost an integral part of that military industrial complex that needed new markets after the end of the cold war. Definitely there is a kind of mutual reciprocity of interest, but I think that it is mainly Israel as a proxy and America as the empire and not the empire that fights the war of the proxy.
I am very open and wouldn’t fall from my chair if people would show me the fact that neo-conservatives were pushed by Israeli ideas to change the nature of the Middle East. You have the well oiled AIPAC, but you cannot blame Israel for the 90 million members of the Christian fundamentalism movement in America. So, it’s an alliance. It’s a terrible alliance, but don’t misunderstand me, Israel would suffer from it in the end. I think the empire can change the policy; and it can also collapse as we know. Empires do collapse, and then the Jews in Israel will be in dire straits. Secondly, it is destructive to the interests and welfare of the locals to the area.
Speaking of the ‘Neo-Cons’, they and their supporters are similarly keen for global Jewry to be considered solely Western rather than as a people of Oriental origin. They speak of ‘Judeo-Christian’ civilization, and are dismissive of the Judeo-Islamic civilizations that once existed in the Middle East and Spain. It strikes me as a means of emphasising solidarity between Jews and the Christian West, and correspondingly distancing the Islamic enemy in the ‘War on Terror’. Would you agree?
Yes, with this I would agree. I think the Huntington kind of idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ puts Israel at the frontline. It’s the last line of defence against Islamic barbarism, and therefore, they phrase their support for Israel as such. But you know equally if you read the neo-cons, they may one day say ‘alright, let's see the cost-benefit ideas not just the ideological terms’. They are also very conservative as you know; and are very concerned about the overall costs. This goes back to Henry Kissinger’s point of view in the 1970’s which says you take from the Middle East what you need, but you do not have to be there. Mainly if you need your oil field, take your oil field. If you need to make sure that Muslims don’t get out of the walls of the Middle East, then you make sure. It doesn’t necessarily mean you go the Bush way in that sense that you democratise the Middle East by force. So in this sense Israel can be a liability rather than an asset.
Then we have a different kind of development around Wolfowitz and the others, and they say Israel can be a vehicle to democratise the Arab world. There you can say it fits into this kind of ideology which says that you have a clash of civilisations, and luckily you have the brave Israelis at the heart of the enemy, and with their help we can conquer. But I think that it is not typical to every neo-conservative thinker that I know of, and I have talked to some of them. I think that some of them can see a scenario, where it would be better to have allies in the Arab world, without democracy and development; than to have the complication of Israel that breaks any lines between America and Arab leaders.
George Bush and the Neo-Cons have apparently been hugely influenced by ex Minister Natan Sharanky’s book ‘The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror’. Can Sharansky really be serious in his stated desire for democracy and liberation while supporting the occupation and expropriation of Palestinian land, or is this cynical political window dressing?
It’s a fantastic question. I don’t know, but after a while people take themselves seriously. In other words I think it is a mixture of very clear ideological perceptions that developed out of necessity. Sharansky is a very different case by the way, to ex Prime Minister Netanyahu who wrote a similar book. Netanyahu was educated in the United States and has the mixtures you see in America between naivety and the cynical brutal ideology of imperialism, and the same comes out in his book ‘A Place Under the Sun’. Sharansky is a different case, who worked for the CIA in the Soviet Union, but also was, I can say, bravely resisting the regime the same time. He came here as a hero, and expected to be a much more important figure in Israeli politics than he was, so he re-invented himself as an intellectual. You have to remember he was a scientist actually, he never wrote about social or political sciences.
Maybe what is missing in the question is the kind of relationship that Netanyahu and Sharansky have with the academia in Israel. You have all these shallow popular books that say in very simple terms that only until democracy emerges in the Arab world, there is no point with reconciling with the Arab world, and until that point we should rely on the United States to fight against the sources of evil. Now, this is reflected in the supposedly more complex way in the works of American and Israeli academics (that Sharansky’s and Netanyahu’s books quote extensively) who say they have all these theories and case studies and hypothesis which prove their so called academic research. Sharansky’s main argument is an old argument, which says that democracies will never fight each other. Actually, I wish actually that these stated beliefs were just ‘window dressing’, and then I would be more optimistic about the ability to confront these people…...
I remember Netanyahu’s brazen testimony to the American Congressional hearing onto the 9/11 disaster; where he actually claimed that Israel was unpopular in the Middle East because of its association with the United States!
Right! He thought that he was winning a lot of support in the United States for that because the whole Middle East became the enemy after 9/11. As I say, he is a cynical person, a charlatan. But I think that I am not convinced there was this sharp dichotomy between what one can call an ideological conviction and a cynical political opinion. With time the two are intertwined in such a way that it doesn’t matter anymore. Mainly if someone goes on for very manipulative reasons adopting an ideological position, eventually he ends up believing that this is his ideological position and he is already captivated by it and informed by it. I think it is the ideology which you can find in modernisation theories and scholarly justifications for imperialism and later on for neo-imperialism.
Speaking about one more politician, former Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid has openly stated the view shared by both Labour and Likud that Israel should become a European country ‘otherwise we will blend into the Semitic region and be lost in a terrible Levantine dunghill.’ Is there not a dichotomy with the government’s desire for Israel to be a country in the Middle East without being a Middle Eastern (or indeed’ Semitic’) country?
Yes. Well, I think as far as he is concerned, anything is justified in excluding Israel from the Middle East as long as it is physically impossible to take Israel out of the Levant and attach it to Europe. The second best means is building walls and adopting political and cultural systems that challenge and fight anyone who does not adapt to the same kind of perception of Israel as a European country. The dichotomy that he himself does not want to admit, is the occupation and the colonisation of Palestine; and the fact that the Palestinians are there; and the fact that so many Jews came from Arab countries. I mean these are all nagging realities that defeat his idea of a European state. In fact he is very funny; he founded the political party that calls for something that the founding fathers of the state thought that would be the reality itself. There should have been no need for an Israeli party that would fight for keeping Israel as a secular democratic Jewish Western country. He has a party which calls for these ideas, and gets only 15 members in the Knesset out of 120, which shows you how multicultural and bi-national the state became in reality, if not ideologically.
The contradiction is between the ideology of the country of being a Jewish and Western State; and the realities of the ground, where in every direction you would look the whole idea is defeated. The sad story about it is that what the Israelis were brought up to believe is (and Lapid is one of them); is that if you cease to be a Western country (though Israel never was a Western country) it’s like a Holocaust. It is a matter of time I think, before the gap and the tension between the overall ideology and the reality would not be able to be sustained anymore.
In February you were a key note speaker at the University of Toronto at a week long event exposing what was described as Israeli apartheid. There are two views on this, I am sure I don’t need to tell you. Israel supporters say it is ‘a light unto nations’ and a beacon of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression; which is obviously diametrically opposed to any idea of Israel being what Edward Said called ‘a Jewish supremacist state’. Can you explain the rationale behind these two? Why there are wildly opposing outlooks, and can you cite some illustrative evidence to support your own point of view?
Well, the point of view of the ‘light unto nations’ is an interesting appropriation of a religious Jewish point of view taken by the secular Zionist movement in order to convince a lot of European powers, to support a colonialist project in the midst of the Arab world. So you needed this image, I think first of all in order to win international legitimacy. If you remember that since 1917, the Zionist movement was fighting for international legitimacy which became easier to win after the Holocaust. It was also needed for domestic consumption to explain to people why they should be living a in a place where they are so hated by the neighbourhood in which they chose to settle. So, I think it is a mixture of the religious ideology of the chosen people, and a very functional ideology in order to explain the unique place of the Zionist project in an Arab world, where other European projects such as the ones in Algeria and Egypt were forced to end and the colonisers were forced to go back to Europe.
Now, the rationale for my point of view is exactly that. In order to maintain the kind of enclave that the Jews wanted to keep in the post colonialist Arab world, they needed to use a lot of coercion and policies of ethnic supremacy, which is actually the essence of Zionism today to my mind. I will give you a few examples: one is that we don’t have a constitution in Israel, but we have a constitutional law which is almost like a constitution and many of them are just apartheid laws. For example, the law of the land, which says that 94% of the land in Israel belongs to the Jewish people alone, not to the state of Israel, and therefore 20% of the population -the Arabs- are barred from this land. Although the Arab population in Israel tripled compared to the Jewish population, there has not been one new Arab settlement or village built, while there are hundreds of new Jewish, towns, villages and settlements. So this is discrimination on the basis of ethnicity on land rights. You cannot exist in an agricultural society like the Arab one, if you are not allowed to expand according to your demographic group. That’s one law.
Then there is the law of citizenship, which says that Palestinians who may have brothers and sisters and relatives all over the Arab world are not allowed to reunite with their families, but Jews all around the world have all the rights to come and become full citizens from the moment they where born.
The third one is the law of social welfare, which says that only people who have served in the army are entitled to the full welfare social system. Now, the Arabs are not allowed to serve in the army, and therefore they are not allowed full social services. And these are just the formal laws. There are many de facto manifestations of apartheid in the way towards the Arab population in the way that the budget is distributed; in the basic treatment by the authorities; the police; and so on.So definitely, I think, my definition of Israel comes closer in my mind to the reality.
A peace treaty, in my view, will not be accepted by the Palestinians without the end of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (and certainly not via the ‘Bantustan’ option offered previously by Ehud Barak). The three past cases of Israel ending occupation were not voluntary, but due to military considerations in the case of South Lebanon and the Egyptian Sinai; and by the American government pulling the plug during the Suez war of 1956. The Palestinians are no match for the Israelis in an armed conflict, and no American President has had a head-on collision with Israel since Eisenhower. Do you see any positive developments for peace?
Basically I agree with this scenario and I will put it in the following way. The end of the occupation is a pre-condition for any genuine peace talks. In fact what the mainly American masters of the peace process have done until now, was to say that the end of occupation equates with the end of peace. I think this was dispelled. Unfortunately, they will try to attempt it again and again in the near future through the ‘road map’, and they will fail again. Whenever it fails, it drains the hopes again; and frustration comes up in the form of an uprising or a cycle of violence. The second point is that I agree that only pressure on Israel will force Israel to end the occupation. It is interesting how the Israeli gradual withdrawal from the Sinai preceded the total Sinai withdrawal. You can on the one hand attribute it to the war of 1973, but in that war Israel was not defeated. There was an American pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Sinai as it was an American interest.
Was it not due to Israeli alarm at the Egyptian army performing much better than expected?
Exactly. So my point is this, as someone who tries to be a pacifist, I find it hard to say that I would like (or that I think that there is a chance for) a military defeat of the Israelis that would cause them to leave the territories - although I was very impressed by Hezbollah in Lebanon forcing the Israelis to get out. My point is that I don’t think that the Palestinians have the ability to accomplish what happened in Lebanon; and secondly, I am a supporter of something else which I think hasn’t been tried in the case of Israel and the West. These are sanctions and boycotts, but this may be related to your formal question about Israel being an apartheid state. I have no idea whether it would work or not, but I know it hasn’t been tried. There are two ideas to end the occupation which are not going to work to my mind. One is the diplomatic route, namely negotiations. The second one is an armed struggle, which I don’t think is going to succeed. Therefore, we have only one other option left, which may not succeed, and then we are all doomed here to a horrible future; but, we have to try, and that is to pressure the Israelis though economic sanctions. The problem with this is that the governments of the day in the West that have the leverage will not do it. However, there is a civil society that may have the ability to pressure these governments. The anti-apartheid movement did not begin from the government. It started from the civil society in Ireland with some very brave sales women on the floor who refused to the bidding of the South Africans and handle their goods. We have to start somewhere and I am not sure whether it will work or not, but I can’t see any other consideration. Of course in time, after the third, fourth or fifth uprising, maybe the Arab world will reunite briefly or partly in such a way that will defeat Israel, but I don’t even want to be part of it. I don’t want to be part of the military destruction of the place I live.
Do you think the death of Yasser Arafat increases the chances for a peaceful settlement? Many regarded Yasser Arafat (along with his cronies in the PLO) as a disaster for the Palestinian people. Undoubtedly he was extremely unattractive to the West too and absolutely hated by Israel.
No. Not at all. I don’t think his death has contributed to the chance of peace at all. I think that his death contributed to a closing of a chapter of the Palestinian national history, and this always happens. And you know people like Arafat that take such a central role in reviving Palestinian national identity. We will leave history to judge. It will be a complex judgement I think. It will not be black and white. But it was a chapter that was important to the closing for the Palestinian people because he became weaker physically and mentally and therefore you needed a new leadership at the time when the community needed great steps as the crisis required a great leader. My analysis has always been, ever since 1957 there is no chance for peace if the Israeli mentality and Zionist ideology continues. Israel’s adhering to Zionist ideology is the reason we do not have peace with the Palestinians. As long as the ideology of ethnic supremacy exists, I think that whoever the Palestinians choose as a leader (and however corrupt they may be), is a very minor element in explaining the failure of peace. The main explanation comes from the fact that the Israeli society as a whole does not want to reconcile with the people it ethnically cleansed in 1948. It doesn’t want to be part of the area which it penetrated by force in the late nineteenth centaury. As long as these are the fundamental positions of the Jewish society and its leadership, there will be no peace.
¹ The destruction of the American Indian societies by White settlers was the primary influence on Hitler’s views on the racial destiny of ‘Aryan’ peoples.
² ‘A History of Modern Palestine, One Land Two Peoples’ by Ilan Pappe, 2004. Page 147: “The tragedy of the loss of more villages (to Israel) was further highlighted by the hasty erection of new Jewish settlements on top of the 370 Palestinian villages destroyed in the 1948 war and on the land of those evicted after the war. In July 1949, Ben-Gurion personally supervised a large project to give ‘Hebrew names to all the places, mountains, valleys, springs and roads, etc’. in the country. This act of ‘memoricide’ was completed in 1951.”Israeli academic Ilan Pappe first came to prominence in the 1980s as a member of the Israel ‘New Historian’ movement that chronicled the war crimes and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians in the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The author of several books critical of ‘heroic’ myths of the Zionist history; he teaches Political Science at Haifa University, and is the Academic Director of the Research Institute for Peace at Givat Haviva. A committed advocate of Palestinian rights; he has called for Israel to be internationally ostracised in the same way pressure was applied to apartheid era South Africa, and has been reviled by right-wing Zionist periodical FrontPage magazine as ‘the most hated Israeli in Israel’. In 2002 he was put on investigation by his own university for his support of a post graduate student who uncovered the Tantura massacre of Palestinians in 1948; but refused to co-operate denouncing it as a ‘show trial’ and a ‘Mcarythist charade’. The charges were later dropped. His latest book is 2003’s ‘A History of Modern Palestine’, of which he is currently writing a second edition.
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